I read something recently which made me very angry, because I could see immediately the very clear connection between these ancient writings (or rantings and ravings, if you prefer), now over a hundred years old, and what has actually come to pass. I could see the blueprint and architecture of the world I was born into laid out rhetorically, with such misplaced pride, bombast, boastfulness, arrogance, presumption and self-assurance, but ultimately with all of its worst flaws open for all to see, described as features and benefits, rather than fatal weaknesses. I’m referring to the Futurist Manifesto – a dark and disturbing work whose shadow casts itself, like a cold cloak, over the present and our future.
Before the Futurist Manifesto was splashed across the pages of Gazzetta dell’Emilia and Le Figaro, in the first decade of the twentieth century, artists didn’t really concern themselves much with manifestos. Instead, these declarations of radical intention were the preserve of the political classes. The Futurist Manifesto, penned by F.T. Marinetti, a thorough-going fascist and friend of Mussolini, with his small cabal of artists, writers and poets (loosely referred to as the Futurists), was the first of its kind. It was the first time that artists had made a significant foray into defining the future, in such an overt and public way. This manifesto started something of a mania for artistic movement manifestos.
To me, the Futurist Manifesto reads like a childish tantrum against the strictures and structures of the old world and the society that these young firebrands knew, with its emphasis on decorum, deference, manners, tradition and orderliness by hierarchy. I’m sure that keen, young things, bursting with life, felt hemmed in and constrained by that world. This manifesto, though, is like a teenage outburst, kicking and screaming, but not having thought through the consequences of their angry words. It is juvenilia of the worst kind. It eschews the life they were obviously bursting with and instead proposes death, but mostly for others. Their vision for what ought to replace the society they were stifled by turned out to be, in many obvious ways, much worse than what it replaced and no closer to a utopian ideal. With the benefit of over a hundred years of hindsight, we can see now how utterly misguided and misguiding the manifesto was.
What is remarkable about the manifesto, to me, is how much it actually wound up shaping the world we today live in and not for the better. The world I have lived in all my life was seemingly made in this manifesto’s very image! Life imitates art, they say. As a set of good ideas for shaping the future, the manifesto is an ugly imposter.
Another remarkable feature of the Futurist Manifesto is how little refuted it has been, since its publication. This was a work of first class buffoonery, dressed up as noble intention. It was irresponsible, destructive, inhumane, prejudiced, sexist, reckless, sinister and insidious, but as far as I can tell, never called out or exposed as either fraudulent or suspect. Gertrude Stein was the only person of note I could find that had obliquely critiqued its central ideas.
No, the manifesto was taken at face value, by and large, without inquiry into the motives, connections, values and purpose of its author. One can only surmise that it perfectly captured the zeitgeist and if true, it casts a bright light onto the widespread ideological insanity of the inhabitants of the so called developed world, at this time in history. It illuminates this terrible human flaw even now. A refutation of this piece of trash is long overdue, I feel.
The petulant, malevolent curses, issued by Marinetti et al, rippled down the decades of the twentieth century and on into the twenty first, in the form of a creeping corporatocracy, spreading like a cancer, self-justified by a declarative aesthetic, as laid out in the Futurist Manifesto. We got what they proposed. Nobody, of course, asked us if this is what we wanted.
Let’s get into the text of the manifesto. The Futurists, it was clear, hated museums. They called them graveyards. Here is what they had to say about museums and libraries:
“We want to demolish museums and libraries.”
“We want to get rid of the innumerable museums which cover it [Italy] with innumerable cemeteries.
Museums, cemeteries! Truly identical in their sinister juxtaposition of bodies that do not know each other. Public dormitories where you sleep side by side for ever with beings you hate or do not know. Reciprocal ferocity of the painters and sculptors who murder each other in the same museum with blows of line and colour. To make a visit once a year, as one goes to see the graves of our dead once a year, that we could allow! We can even imagine placing flowers once a year at the feet of the Giaconda! But to take our sadness, our fragile courage and our anxiety to the museum every day, that we cannot admit! Do you want to poison yourselves? Do you want to rot?
What can you find in an old picture except the painful contortions of the artist trying to break uncrossable barriers which obstruct the full expression of his dream?
To admire an old picture is to pour our sensibility into a funeral urn instead of casting it forward with violent spurts of creation and action. Do you want to waste the best part of your strength in a useless admiration of the past, from which you will emerge exhausted, diminished, trampled on?
Indeed daily visits to museums, libraries and academies (those cemeteries of wasted effort, calvaries of crucified dreams, registers of false starts!) is for artists what prolonged supervision by the parents is for intelligent young men, drunk with their own talent and ambition.
For the dying, for invalids and for prisoners it may be all right. It is, perhaps, some sort of balm for their wounds, the admirable past, at a moment when the future is denied them. But we will have none of it, we, the young, strong and living Futurists!
Let the good incendiaries with charred fingers come! Here they are! Heap up the fire to the shelves of the libraries! Divert the canals to flood the cellars of the museums! Let the glorious canvases swim ashore! Take the picks and hammers! Undermine the foundation of venerable towns!”
I say that this attitude is a classic example of throwing the baby out with the bath water. Turning your back on all the best things that culture has produced, to date, seems like abandoning humanity’s grand “work in progress”. These Futurist clowns, in their zeal to condemn all that was old, threw away all of the progress, as if the pinnacle point that had been reached, so far, was valueless. Clearly, this standpoint marks the author out as totally clueless.
The clean slate approach to culture may have seemed thrilling, because you could exercise ultimate control over the ensuing culture, when all that went before is swept away, but it’s an ignorant and self-defeating starting point. It’s tantamount to proclaiming that all one’s ancestors were blithering imbeciles, incapable of rational thought or acts of monumental brilliance. It’s an absurd idea. The Futurists wouldn’t have even existed, if their ancestors had not had certain adeptness, when it comes to survival.
The facts are that some of the ideas that humanity developed, prior to the emergence of the Futurists, need resurrection and revival, even still! Just because there were some (or even a preponderance) of morbid, fetid, stultifying, ossifying ideas from the past, it does not follow that there were no ideas of any worth at all. The Futurists were clearly ignorant of the work and writings of William Morris, for example. They clearly hadn’t read “News from Nowhere”, or “Progress and Poverty”, or “Looking Backward”. They were unacquainted with “Useful Work versus Useless Toil” and had never heard of Parsons and his writings on Anarchism. They most likely had scant understanding of Voluntaryism.
You have to ask what their motive could have been, in eschewing all of history. Could it have been that history had already provided workable answers to the human plight, by 1910, but that the privileged and pampered refused to accept that these answers were workable, without actually trying them? It was the moneyed and powerful that had the most to gain from burying these brilliant ideas from history, claiming them to be the ashes of a bygone age, worthless to the future. In point of fact, a wonderful future had already been described in abundantly workable detail. Those ideas would work today and have never been more relevant.
The Futurist Manifesto, then, can be read as an attempt to discredit that logically inevitable future and replace it with another, more convenient and satisfactory to the privileged in society, at the time. In other words, it was a description of a future more favourable to corporate interests; as opposed to the existing vision of the future, described earlier, that benefited the ordinary man. If you can’t discredit an excellent idea, then pretend that its antiquity renders it irrelevant, instead of more pressing. It’s the oldest trick in the book.
The Futurists claimed they were wedded to the thrill and danger of speed. Here is what they said:
“We declare that the splendour of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing automobile with its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath … a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.” (http://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/winged-victory-samothrace)
“We are already living in the absolute, since we have already created eternal, omnipresent speed.”
What did we moderns, alive today, inherit from their mania for speed? We got frenzy in business, the manufacture of artificial urgency, unrelenting stress, and a pace of work that is not justified by the meaning and purpose of the work. The Futurist Manifesto’s consequences were automobile exhaust pollution, unbreathable air, asthma epidemics, millions of premature deaths due to carbon monoxide and nitrous oxide waste products, an unconscionable road toll, global warming, acid rain, planned obsolescence, widespread systematic and deliberate deception on emissions tests, wars of conquest for oil, decades of Middle East unrest and the artificial enrichment and concentration of power in the hands of robber barons and Bedouin herdsmen. All of these things are the living repercussions of the glorification of speed – a monument to the Futurist’s ideal of speed. The Futurists promised that speed would be beautiful and exhilarating, but it is, instead, a source of ubiquitous, unavoidable, choking frustration, impotence and self-annihilation. That is the legacy of this aspect of the Futurist Manifesto.
The Futurists worshiped and exalted war. Here is what the manifesto has to say on the matter:
“We want to glorify war — the only cure for the world — militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman.”
Well, we got plenty of that, too. War has been incessant. The twentieth century was the bloodiest century humanity has ever endured and the twenty first shows no signs of being any different. Since the Futurist Manifesto was written, humanity has suffered a century of almost continuous, wanton destruction, via warfare, for dubious causes.
To glorify war is to admit to a sick fetish with a death cult. Ironic that the Futurists so declaimed graveyards, when they were full of their much-despised paintings, sculptures and poems of the past, but were happy to fill them, on an industrial scale, with dead human beings. War multiplied by speed equals unprecedented destruction, with little that is creative to replace what is destroyed. To speak of the glorification of war is obscene in the extreme. What is glory? What can you do with it? Can you eat it? Can you spend it? Does it keep you warm and dry, against the elements? It does none of these things. It is a useless abstraction, similar to paper money, where people lay down things of real and tangible value, in exchange for an ephemeral nonsense, called “glory”. The glorification of war, in the Futurist Manifesto, was an expression of pure arrogance and egotism.
The Futurists spoke of the cleansing and hygienic (meaning eugenic) power of war and held that it was the only cleanser strong enough to produce a better world, as if they could adequately describe a better one, if required to do so and as if a better one had not already been described by their forebears. War is an indiscriminate cleanser, in that it is indifferent to which human qualities (and those that embody them) it wipes out.
In fact, when war does selectively discriminate, it discriminates to keep the filthy, faulty, malevolent, malignant, psychopathic tendencies that afflict humanity, favouring the sadistic, the unjust, the merciless and the domineering. If anything, war preserves the most lethal of human tendencies toward destruction, despoliation and depletion.
If the world that remains, after the “cleansing” act of total war, consists of only those extremely negative human traits, then the cleansing will have only amplified the human appetite for self-annihilation. How is that anything that could even remotely be described as “cleaner” or “more hygienic”? Violence has no legitimate part to play in the shaping of a better world, in truth. It’s the one human trait we need to deselect, rather than preserve at the expense of others.
The Futurists sanctified violent aggression. Here are some quotations from the manifesto:
“There is no masterpiece that has not an aggressive character. Poetry must be a violent assault on the forces of the unknown, to force them to bow before man.”
“We want to exalt movements of aggression, feverish sleeplessness, the double march, the perilous leap, the slap and the blow with the fist.”
This is the language of domination and conquest. It seeks to crush all who stand in their way. In short, it is a succinct encapsulation of the unhealthy and disingenuous capitalist obsession with competition. By competition, they never mean a fair competition. That’s just the propaganda version, for public consumption. What they really mean is competition in which only they can prevail, by any means necessary, irrespective of the cost or harm to others, without ethics or morals to get in the way.
The Futurist Manifesto went on to say:
“What is the use of looking behind at the moment when we must open the mysterious shutters of the impossible? Time and Space died yesterday.”
Matvei Petrovich Bronstein, was perhaps the first person in history to understand how quantum gravity negated both time and space, in 1936. It was an insight and idea of such soaring beauty and sublime imagination, inestimably valuable to all of humanity. Sadly, those heavily influenced by Futurism and the venomous, rhetorical invective of the Futurist Manifesto, violently and aggressively, put him to death, in 1938, for the “crimes” of not believing in Stalin, the Soviet and, it was proclaimed by his accusers, because he “was resolutely opposing materialist dialectics being applied to natural science”.
It was an act of cleansing, to restore pure, Stalinist hygiene. In 1910, time and space had not, in fact, died yesterday, but an understanding of how infinitesimal packets of gravity subsumed time and space died some 28 years later. Humanity has not regained this understanding and lucid insight, to this very date.
It no doubt exacerbated Bronstein’s plight that he was of Jewish origin, as though that was the most important thing about the man. It can’t have helped his cause that he shared a surname with the (by then) denounced, exiled Leon Trotsky, originally a Bronstein, too (though the two are probably not blood relations, but that has never been an obstacle to blind bigotry). Trotsky himself would meet his end at the hands of a Stalinist death squad, just two years later.
Ultimately, the only rational explanation that can be given for the trumped up charges and summary executions was that the machinery of the Soviet State and its “Great Terror” had quotas to meet. Quotas. The terrible purges and the needless deaths that followed were all to fulfil an arbitrary target, written down by who knows which ideologue, based on nothing but pure, paranoid speculation. Perhaps it was Stalin himself, or his hated henchman, Beria. Matvei Bronstein’s wife didn’t find out about her husband’s execution for another ten years. There was no grave for Bronstein, in any graveyard so despised by the Futurists.
How exactly is one supposed to advocate sanity in a world full of ideological lunatics? I think the question could be levelled at the Futurists. I think it is a relevant and current question for today’s lunatic ideologues, steeped as they are in the language and values of the Futurist Manifesto, whether consciously aware of it or not.
The Futurists, bizarrely, glorified youth. Here is what they had to say on that:
“The oldest among us are not yet thirty years old: we have therefore at least ten years to accomplish our task. When we are forty let younger and stronger men than we throw us in the waste paper basket like useless manuscripts! They will come against us from afar, leaping on the light cadence of their first poems, clutching the air with their predatory fingers and sniffing at the gates of the academies the good scent of our decaying spirits, already promised to the catacombs of the libraries.
But we shall not be there. They will find us at last one winter’s night in the depths of the country in a sad hangar echoing with the notes of the monotonous rain, crouched near our trembling aeroplanes, warming our hands at the wretched fire which our books of today will make when they flame gaily beneath the glittering flight of their pictures.
They will crowd around us, panting with anguish and disappointment, and exasperated by our proud indefatigable courage, will hurl themselves forward to kill us, with all the more hatred as their hearts will be drunk with love and admiration for us. And strong healthy Injustice will shine radiantly from their eyes. For art can only be violence, cruelty, injustice.
The oldest among us are not yet thirty, and yet we have already wasted treasures, treasures of strength, love, courage and keen will, hastily, deliriously, without thinking, with all our might, till we are out of breath.
Look at us! We are not out of breath, our hearts are not in the least tired. For they are nourished by fire, hatred and speed! Does this surprise you? It is because you do not even remember being alive! Standing on the world’s summit, we launch once more our challenge to the stars!”
What has been the consequence? Today, we have a culture that worships youth and disparages age and experience. Ageism is a thing. We have innumerable middle-aged Peter Pans, all trying desperately to recapture their youth, in futile acts of mid-life crisis. Was there such thing as a mid-life crisis before the Futurists declared youth to be ascendant? We have elevated the supremacy of youth culture to the point of ridicule, accompanied by a corporate-friendly indulgence in selfish, wasteful, over-consumption. We’ve all become big children – adolescents with credit cards.
The Futurists also proclaimed that they wanted to “fight morality, feminism and all opportunist and utilitarian cowardice”.
What has been the outcome of the attack on morality? Today, we witness frequent and egregious failures of moral imagination, to the extent where compassion has all but disappeared and is looked down upon as a weakness. When posed a moral dilemma, there are whole swathes of the population that are blind to the morality of the scenario. They lack the moral imagination to even perceive a moral choice is being offered. A world without a functioning moral compass is truly lost indeed, yet that appears to be the point we have reached, in human affairs. The Futurist attack on morality has succeeded spectacularly.
Similarly, the attack on feminism has resulted in a century of escalating domestic and sexual violence toward women, inequality, prejudice and a situation where women feel under threat, their entire lives, subject to unwelcome harassment and abuse. Why would the Futurists choose to attack feminism? It is never clearly explained or justified, in the manifesto, but instead simply asserted, without motivation. Could it be to suppress the superior and gentler wisdom of the feminine side of humanity? Could it have been to pretend that kindness, compassion and mercy, traditionally more abundantly exhibited by females than males, had no value? Did it clash with the Futurists’ glorification of warfare? Was the attack on feminism a proxy attack on altruism, to replace it with greed, conquest and selfishness?
We continue to endure the future the Futurists wrought for us, one hundred years ago. Their fine words and stirring catch phrases were in the service of bullshit ideals, but nobody was ever given an opportunity to seriously question the basis for these ideals, or their applicability for a future world. The rhetoric was accepted at face value, influencing, justifying and giving license to decades of inhumanity and senseless destruction. Well, I would like to say a sarcastic, “thanks,” to these short-sighted, childish, naive, self-involved, corporate-aligned, destruction monkeys. Who benefitted from the future that the Futurists described and cried out to create, so shrilly? The same rulers, leaders and heads of commerce that always benefitted simply shored up their power and privilege, through this invective.
The Futurists were duped into promoting a dystopian future and they all fell for it, hook line and sinker, fuelled by their outrageous vanity. They’re all dead now, but the modernity they described in their manifesto is with us still. I hope they lived long enough to witness the horrendous consequences of their declarations of faith and belief. I hope their naivety was utterly refuted by the evidence of events.
Their zeal and ambitions, rather than reality, fed their imaginations.
The Futurist Manifesto is a vile, anti-humanist document and doctrine. The Futurist project was and is despicable. It is with us still – a fundamentally fascistic, corporatist project, masquerading as modern, civilised and advanced. In reality, it is one of the most regressive and backward sets of ideals ever conceived, yet these ill-conceived notions underpin our leadership assumptions to the present day.
We owe the Futurists our unalloyed disgust and condemnation. Let their manifesto stand as a warning to history, not its blueprint.